One of many cut paperworks in Cooper Hewitt’s collection made by the same (now anonymous) craftsperson, this incredibly intricate devotional card is an example of the paper-crafting technique scherenschnitte (German for “scissor cuts”). Frequently used to embellish religious objects representing saints and other figures well-known to the Catholic, Germanic world of the 18th century, scherenschnitte is a German and Swiss paper-cutting art which began in the 17th century and was eventually brought over to the new world with immigrants settling in Pennsylvania (where it is still practiced as a traditional craft today). Practitioners are able to create beautiful, intricate, lace-like designs on paper using a small knife or very sharp, tiny scissors. Scherenschnitte objects can have a variety of finishes, from patterns cut symmetrically from one folded sheet of paper (similar to the way children make paper snowflakes), to narrative scenes created from multiple pieces of cut, layered paper. Pinpricking, using pins of varying widths, is also used to increase the delicacy and transparency of the finished piece. The details on this and other scherenschnitte objects are often so fine that the finished work resembles the most delicate lace.
This particular cut paperwork appears to have originated in South Germany or Austria circa 1770. It is a devotional object depicting the Miraculous Virgin of Einsiedeln, a Black Madonna housed in a shrine in Einsiedeln, Switzerland. A Catholic pilgrimage site since the Middle Ages, the shrine would have been well-known to the German-speaking world of the 18th century as a holy site. The black marble statue of the Virgin Mary with infant Jesus was originally white, and darkened into a deep gray through centuries of devotional candle smoke (hence why it is referred to as a “Black Madonna”).
The painted embellishments on this piece – floral accents, bright colors, and illuminated details—are similar to what later became known as the the fraktur style, a folk art commonly produced by the Pennsylvania Dutch settlers of the 18th and 19th centuries. The tiny, painstakingly created details of this piece, and the silk damask it was mounted on, suggest that this devotional card would have been a very special object meant for meditating on the divine at home.
Gillian Marcus is a paper conservator and a member of the Picturae team working on the mass digitization project of Cooper Hewitt’s collections.